Comedy’s potential to deliver political messages spans from as nearby as the Bryant-Lake Bowl and Burnsville, Minn. to John Oliver’s late-night television show. Locals discussed its potential and pitfalls last week at the Phoenix Theater in the second of a series of talks about art and citizenship at the Phoenix Theater. What it revealed was a far-reaching discussion about crafting comedy for a cause and a close-to-home incident of comedy taken out of context.

The close-to-home one first: Derek “Duck” Washington is an actor, playwright, director and sound designer who has been working in the Twin Cities for the last 20 years. He started the talk by telling a story of his recent experiences with a comedic show he wrote called Caucasian Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales. You might remember this from last summer’s Minnesota Fringe Festival, or even from its 2015 premiere at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

The show talks about Washington’s experience growing up as someone who is both black and white. It received impressive reviews from both of its runs, which might have been why the Burnsville-based Chameleon Theatre Circle invited Washington to do the show as part of their 2017-18 season.

The show is no longer in that season, Washington said, because representatives from the city-backed Ames Center that houses the theater objected to having the word “mulatto” in the title, citing worries that people could be offended by it.

Washington admitted the word has a difficult history, and “a lot of that is what the play addresses.” He thought a lot about whether to include this word in the title, he said, and it was meant as a talking point to take people into a show that explores race in a fun and interesting way. All of this is evident in the context of the show, he said.

“I wanted to bring people into my world, not push them away,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons I wrote it to be a comedy. I find comedy to be a fantastic tool to soften the edge of defensibility.”

For now, Washington said he’s looking past Pandas to other shows, and just feels sorry that this story will not get to be told to a new audience in the near future. (We are currently working on a follow-up story.)

National and international messages

Matthew Foster, American Civic Forum president and event host, said comedy’s great ability to bring pressing subjects to the surface also makes it easy to misinterpret. But a comedic play, like Washington’s, has room to explore context and nuances and also offer solutions to the problems it pokes at. Shorter forms like standup comedy, he said, are more limited in doing this.

That’s where Levi Weinhagen chimed in. The writer, social justice podcaster and Comedy Suitcase co-founder said, “the solution it creates is about connection with other people. We can share space as humans even if you don’t agree with all of my ideas. Comedy’s really powerful in that way.”

But what about when comedians mash together a lot of different ideologies? Foster pointed out that late-night comedians like Jimmy Fallon and Jay Leno share a strategy of even-handedness. They make jokes against both ends of the political spectrum. Foster said this tactic is more likely to confuse people than to get them to care about and take part in the political process.

Not so with John Oliver. Comedians like John Oliver are effective because they give people the information they need to understand and care about an issue, and then put them on a thought path, giving an argument that has a definite side and mobilizes people to do something about it, Weinhagen said.

“They use jokes in service of a point of view as opposed to a lot of comedy shows that are throwing in various points of view in service of laughs,” Weinhagen said. This creates a debate: You can be funny for funny’s sake or try to do something with your comedy. John Oliver does this by calling people to action.

“What the call to action does is, you’re suddenly taking responsibility for what you’re doing, which a lot of people playing in comedy spaces don’t want to do.” Weinhagen said. “Which is why people hide behind the idea of ‘I’m just making jokes; I’m not trying to hurt anyone.’”

This is not truly possible, he said. Comedians make choices about what they say, and should stand by them, even if it means sacrificing a joke to stay in line with what they believe is right.